Abiy Ahmed’s visit to South Africa this weekend was unprecedented on several fronts: not only was it the first ever state visit, in either direction, between Ethiopia and South Africa, but it was also the first time a sitting Ethiopian prime minister has spoken directly to the sizeable diaspora here.
Before the official engagements, however, Abiy needed to get some politics out of the way: cementing ties between the continent’s oldest political party, the ANC, and its newest (Abiy’s Prosperity Party was launched in November last year).
In Kimberley on Saturday for the ANC’s 108th birthday celebration, Abiy — who donned an ANC golf shirt and cap for the occasion — was note perfect: “On this occasion we salute our freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Ahmed Kathrada, and many others who dedicated their lives to the struggle for a better South Africa and a better world,” he said.
Next up was the formal reception at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Sunday morning, where President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed him with all the usual pomp, platitudes and ceremony. But the two leaders also had serious issues to discuss, most significantly the xenophobic violence in South Africa, which has frequently been directed towards the Ethiopian community here; and a request that Ramaphosa intervene in the bitter dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Finally, on a hot Sunday afternoon in Johannesburg, Abiy made his way to the Wanderers Stadium. This was a distinctly unusual event, resembling a campaign rally — but for a sitting head of state of a foreign country. Similar events organised by other African countries tend to be much smaller, and much more tightly controlled.
The famous sports ground could have been hosting an Ethiopian national team for all the flags and the red, green and yellow regalia on display. Merchandise stands were doing a brisk trade, especially the enterprising vendor selling wooden replicas of Abiy’s 2019 Nobel peace prize medal, while Ethiopian pop and Bob Marley blared out from the stadium’s loudspeakers.
“No other leader has visited us before. Not Meles Zenawi, not Hailemariam [Desalegn]. This is a first,” said Tamrat, a young man wearing a shirt with Abiy’s face on it.
Although crowd sizes are hard to judge, the lower tiers of the Unity Pavilion were packed, with an estimated four or five thousand people in attendance. Such a huge crowd is especially significant because many Ethiopians in South Africa fled for political reasons, and many would previously have been afraid to show their faces anywhere near Ethiopian authorities.
The scale of his public appearance in Johannesburg underscores that this is a vitally important constituency for Abiy. Remittances from the global diaspora brought a staggering $3.8-billion into Ethiopia in the last financial year, and much of it comes from South Africa — although no one is quite sure how much, or how many Ethiopians actually live here. In a media briefing last week, not even the Ethiopian ambassador Shiferaw Teklemariam could put a number on the country’s Ethiopian population. Diaspora Ethiopians themselves usually say the community is in comprises more than 100 000 people.
It also comes at a very important time for Abiy. His ambitious, generation-defining project to remake the Ethiopian state is still in its early days, and the political space that he has opened up has brought serious tensions to the fore — and precipitated deadly new protests and conflicts, arguably making Abiy’s Ethiopia more dangerous than before he assumed power. His much-lauded peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea — the deal that won him his Nobel prize — hangs by a thread, and he must fight a general election later this year without the support of key elements of his ruling alliance.
In other words, Abiy needs all the support he can get — and he has come to Johannesburg to find some.
Abiy addressed the crowd from a VIP box, which meant that most of his audience could not actually see him speak, and were forced to watch his face on the big screen. No matter: they were attentive during the speech, which lasted about 45 minutes, and cheered and waved their flags every time he made a point.
The speech was wide-ranging. In Amharic, Abiy spoke at length about the importance of unity and working together to bring about a better Ethiopia. He mentioned Mandela and how Ethiopia had supported the struggle against apartheid. He said that Ethiopians in South Africa don’t steal or make trouble, because they are working too hard. He talked about eliminating the problem of regionalism at home, which already threatens to tear apart the modern state he is trying to create. He urged people not to take their problems straight to Facebook. He said that now was the time for the diaspora to invest in Ethiopia, because prosperity and jobs are just around the corner.
“Don’t forget where you’re from,” he said. “If you forget where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Abiy also addressed more practical concerns, relaying the agreements from his meeting with Ramaphosa: the South African president had promised to make it easier for Ethiopian nationals to obtain immigration and asylum documentation from Home Affairs, he said; and had promised to address violence against the community.
He finished to a standing ovation, and chants of “Abiy! Abiy!” echoed around the stadium.
“I love him so much,” said Ephrata, 13, who had come with her whole family. “He inspires me; he makes me so proud of being Ethiopian.”
Beruk, 42, was not quite so effusive. He’s been in South Africa for 20 years, having fled for political reasons, and is still waiting for things to change. “It’s good things for the future. But at the moment we didn’t see anything change. They say they made peace [between Ethiopia and Eritrea], but horizontally, at the level of people to people, we don’t see change yet.”
That, ultimately, was Abiy’s main message to the diaspora in South Africa: to convince them that Ethiopia really is changing, and that he really is the man to lead that change. Judging from the crowd’s reactions, in Johannesburg he found a receptive audience.